Americans expect certain amenities in their houses, expectations that apparently are not shared by the majority of house-buying South Africans.
For example, I think most Americans would shy away from a house that had no sink in the kitchen, even if there was a huge, state-of-the art sink in the very next room. And central heating…Americans pretty much expect central heating in their houses unless the house is of a certain age and has not been remodelled to add it. But there are things that are just accepted as “normal” in South African houses that would amaze, amuse, and dismay an American home buyer.
Windows…most modern American homes have aluminium window frames. Often they are clad and require little or no maintenance, and they have channels built in for screens. South African houses mostly have wood-framed windows…unpainted wood-framed windows, at that. They are varnished and require yearly sanding and revarnishing in order to stay in good condition. And there aren’t any screens. In fact, you cannot buy, beg, borrow or steal screen doors or window screens in this country! The only window screens I have ever seen here were at a home show, and they were for blocking the sun, not keeping insects and other little nasties from sneaking into your house. You buy a house in South Africa and want screens on your windows, be prepared to import both the screens and the windows from the US, because you simply will not find them here!
Burglar bars…I don’t know about where you live in America, but where I lived, if you saw a house for sale and it had burglar bars on all the windows and doors, you would immediately assume that the area has a serious crime problem and you would pass on the house. South Africans take a totally different view…if the house doesn’t have burglar bars, high masonry walls with spikes and electric fencing on top, CCTV cameras and monitors and an alarm hooked to a private armed response company, people walk away! I have gotten so accustomed to barred windows that the only time I really see them is when I want to take a photo out the window and the blasted bars mar the view…the camera lens can’t blot them out of the picture the way my brain can. Sometimes the problem you are fencing out, however, is not human…my mother-in-law lives in Durban and she had to put up electric fencing to keep the vervet monkeys out! These are the cutest little creatures, but terribly destructive if they get into your house…think raccoons but diurnal and with prehensile tails!
Heating…every American house I lived in from 1975 onward had forced air heating, including a heat vent in the bathroom. One even had an electronic thermostat that would allow you to program it to turn on the heat just before you awoke in the morning or got home from work and could be zoned so you wouldn’t heat the guest bedroom unnecessarily while you were warming up your bedroom and bath. Nothing in South Africa even comes close!
We are not looking in low-rent districts nor are we looking at cheap houses. Our hunt encompasses larger, finer homes, places you would expect to have the finest in creature comforts….like heat. But, despite this being the 21st century, South African homes are still being built without heat in the rooms…a fireplace in the living room and/or family room is about the best you can hope for. It’s not because it is so balmy here that heat is unnecessary…no, it gets pretty cold in the winters and even occasionally snows here in Joburg. But even in Cape Town the winters are chilly, so much so that the local shops make a pretty good business of selling space heaters of varying design. So, in an elegant home costing millions of bucks you will find cheap, ugly little space heaters tucked away to heat the rooms.
And the bathrooms? Suck it up…not only is there no heat in the room, there aren’t any electrical outlets to plug one into…or for a hair dryer, curling iron, or the chargers for your electric toothbrush or shaver. Not only that, the light switch for the bathroom is outside the bathroom! So, except for the wiring to the hole in the ceiling into which the light is wired, South African bathrooms have no electricity!!
This isn’t where the peculiarities of South African bathrooms end, however. Back in the early ’60s my father and stepmother bought a modest new tract home in Southern California. The master bath had a sink, shower and toilet, the main bath had a tub, sink and toilet. American houses have evolved since then, and in most houses built after that time, the main bath (“family bath” in South African) has a shower over the tub. Sometimes there is a shower curtain, sometimes there is a sliding glass door, but there is invariably a shower to accompany the tub. Well, that’s practically an unheard-of concept in South Africa. Around here, if a bathroom has both a tub and a shower, most likely the shower is a separate unit from the tub…and just as likely, it is only big enough for an extremely thin child to turn around in comfortably. Even in new homes or freshly remodelled bathrooms, the showers tend to be tiny little affairs tucked behind a door or stuck to the foot end of the tub. My last house in California had a large walk-in shower (easily big enough for sharing with my generously proportioned husband) in the master bath and that house was built in 1960!
And extractor fans? A fan to suck out the steam and thereby keep mildew down and afford you use of the mirror? Unheard of. The only bathroom I have ever seen that had an extractor fan was in the cottage at my rental property…and I had that installed when we renovated the cottage!
I’ve touched on some of the peculiarities of the South African kitchen, but there’s more. While a South African bathroom probably doesn’t have an extractor fan, a South African kitchen probably does, in the form of a stove hood. Unlike their American counterparts, however, these extractors do not vent to the outside. This came as a great surprise to me in my first South African house. I opened the cupboard above the extractor, expecting to find the big vent tube leading up to the hole in the roof, and found nothing! It had a fan, the fan had filters…but no ducting to the outside. I still have no idea how (or even if) it worked. The next house had a stainless hood with a long tube that went up the wall and into the ceiling. It wasn’t until a couple of years later that I discovered it, too, did not vent to the outside, but vented into the attic crawl space!! Why don’t they vent these things outside? I shudder to think of going into that crawl space…the house was built in 1972…can you imagine the kind of sticky crap hanging around up there? eeewwww!
South African houses seldom have laundry rooms or even a laundry area in the garage (and basements are pretty much non-existent here). There are no “mud porches” either, although a good number of houses have a scullery. So where do you do the wash? Well, in the absence of a scullery or a laundry room, you do it in your kitchen. Yup…In the space where you or I would put a dishwasher, the South African housewife has a washing machine. A dryer? Oh…it can be anywhere in the house since most dryers sold here do not have a vent hose to the outside. Nope, they have a peculiar perforated ring around the dryer door that allows the hot, damp air to be vented right into your house!
Dishwashers are not terribly popular here, but they are starting to show up more and more in recent years. The house I live in now has space for two appliances in the scullery with water hookups for both of them…but no place for a dryer, despite the fact that it customarily rains every afternoon here, so clothesline drying is frequently not an option.
Garbage disposals are pretty much unknown here, too. I had one for so long in America, I had to reach back in my memory to my grandmothers’ houses to recall what to do for food prep with no disposal to toss the peelings and trimmings into. I particularly miss the disposal when I find something disgusting mouldering away in the back of the fridge and can’t just dump it down the sink and flip the switch to get rid of it! But the fact that in most homes all sinks and tubs drain to an open drain outside and from there to the sewers, would make a garbage disposal unwise…the pulverized foods that cling to the inside of the drain and the pipes would be a feast for the local insect life and I have enough bugs to content with, without inviting them over for a feast every time I turn on the disposal!
Oh…and you know those convenient little sprayer thingies on the sink, the one you use to rinse stuff down the drain, clean the sides of the sink of scouring powder, rinse shampoo off the Yorkie or use to fill pots or buckets too big to fit under the faucet? Unknown here. Completely and totally unknown, both in practice and in concept! When I remodelled the last kitchen I found a faucet that the head could be pulled out (on a tube) and if you pushed a button the top of it, water would spray. But it was a rather wide-angle, high pressure spray that pretty much sprayed everything within a metre’s diameter, so it was not the optimum solution. I think when I remodel my next kitchen, I’m going to send to the States for my kitchen sink and taps!
When was the last time you say a house without a closet? My parents bought an Eichler-style house when I was in the first grade…around 1952…and this house had closets with sliding doors. Apparently built-in closets are relatively new in South Africa, as it seems to be a feature people find worthy of including in their advertisements. “BICs” the ads read, like they were some kind of new, fabulous invention and this house has them. Well, they are crap.
We aren’t talking a sliding door closet, here, we are talking cupboards…cheap white melamine cupboards in most cases, like closet sized el cheapo kitchen cabinets screwed to the bedroom wall. Cupboards with doors that sag within a year or two, and with both hanging space and shelves designed to supplant your dressers. Since when is a shelf that you cannot see to the back of better than a drawer you can pull out and see what lurks in the back? I hate these things…they are ugly, cheap, and don’t do half the job a simple walk-in closet would do! And even in the expensive up market homes you find them…although they are probably clad in a faux woodgrain covering so they don’t look quite as tacky as the white ones.
South African houses, for all that they look very much like American houses from the outside, seem to lack much of the amenities that Americans take for granted and are, therefore, glaring in their absence. There is one South African amenity, however, found in here homes both modest and grand, that Americans seem to overlook when building or remodelling their homes: the built-in pub-style bar. This just boggles me…perhaps it is that Puritan streak deeply buried in my American consciousness sticking its disapproving head out, but I would be mortally embarrassed to have such a thing in my house! I would expect people to think perhaps I had an alcohol problem…indeed, if you drink so much beer that you have a professional tap setup and you can kill a keg before it goes flat or stale, I’m thinking you probably do! Aside from the fact that it would seem to narrow your sales market (every time we see a house with one of these, we start calculating what it will cost to remove it and restore the room back to normal…always too much!) these things are just huge, cumbersome and ugly. I have actually seen three houses with kitchens that desperately needed an infusion of cash and decent design that had, instead, well-appointed bars with plumbing, refrigeration, cabinets and shelves for a broad array of liquors and glassware, and even expensive sound equipment. What kind of message does it send to any kids living in the house… “my parents can’t afford to fix up the kitchen but they spent thousands on a professional pub in the family room…guess I can tell which is important!” No piddling kegerator here…nope…a real pub-style bar that will seat four to eight people and keep them supplied with the poison of their choice for hours…even days…on end!
I don't expect to find an American home here...I really don't. But it seems to me when someone is selling a beautiful, expensive home, some basic creature comforts...like heat...would be part of the basic amenities! But I know better and will be satisfied with a house that has a footprint that can be massaged to accommodate the installation of my most precious creature comforts, which is turning out to be a bigger job than expected. I am starting to feel like this house hunt is going to go on forever!
Friday, February 26, 2010
Americans expect certain amenities in their houses, expectations that apparently are not shared by the majority of house-buying South Africans.
Thursday, February 25, 2010
South African houses are different from American houses in many ways. The renowned architect, Buckminster Fuller, once said “…a house is a machine for living…” and American home designers have, for the most part, seized on that sentiment and run with it. American houses, by and large, are logically laid out and come with a basic minimum of creature comforts and conveniences, particularly homes built in the last quarter century. Not so South African houses, not even those built in the last year!
Not only have South African home designers never heard of the kitchen work triangle, they’ve apparently never heard the phrase “room flow.” Americans may never have heard of this term, most likely because “room flow” is conspicuous only by its absence, and the vast majority of modern American homes have it…and the majority of houses I have seen on this most recent house hunt do not.
So just what is “room flow”? Well, it is easier to describe some examples of what is not… In average American home you enter from the front door into either an entryway of some kind or directly into the living room (“lounge” in South African parlance). There is usually either a bedroom wing served by a central hallway (“passageway”) or a second story with bedrooms. If the house has a dining room, it is probably adjacent to (or across a hall from) the kitchen. In open plan style houses, the kitchen will most likely be open plan with a family room, the formal dining room separated from the kitchen but perhaps open to the living room. When moving from room to room, you do not have to use one room as a passageway to another (with the exception of the kitchen and open plan areas).
We are not looking in any “downmarket” neighbourhoods. All of the houses we are seeing are in middle to upper middleclass areas and the average price we are looking at is around R2 million. This price will also buy us a very well-appointed McMansion in a gated community, so don’t let the exchange rate fool you. Here is a link to a house we have looked at and is going for R2.1 million. As you can see, this is not a cheap fixer-upper, it is a beautiful, gracious house of more than 5000 sq ft set on a half acre of landscaped grounds. All of the houses we have looked at are pretty much in the R1.6M to R2.6M range, like this one…and despite their handsome prices (and the implication that for this money you are getting a premium property), a shocking number of them were laid out in such a way that they had what Hubby calls “the glommed-on effect,” the antithesis of room flow.
Last week we saw a large house in a leafy suburb near Hubby’s office. It started off ok, we walked into the house through a small entryway, the bedrooms in a wing to the right, the public rooms (“reception rooms”) to the left. The living room was so small as to feel claustrophobic and a narrow opening in the far wall proved to be a doorway to the “family room.” Actually, it was a thatched-roof patio that had had brick walls erected around it, and you had to enter it by walking diagonally across the cramped living room. At the other end of the house, the fourth bedroom had to be entered by walking through the master bedroom…although the room did have its own private door to the driveway. This room, too, had been added on, the insides of the walls simply painted brick, no attempt made to plaster or insulate the walls. So, two of the rooms were just kinda stuck onto the house with no thought for access to them…how would you like your child to have to traipse past your bed in the middle of the night en route to the bathroom? The owners wanted R1.99M for it, way too much considering that it also needed the bathrooms and kitchen (original 1970s vintage) gutted and redone and some kind of internal remodelling was necessary to restore room flow to the house.
Another house we visited had no dining room and a bad remodel of the kitchen had left it withno place to sit and eat. The owners had taken space in the already small living room for the dining table, and right next to it they had erected an enormous, dark, pub-style bar. It overwhelmed the small space, dominating the room like a huge vulture brooding in the corner. Access to the back yard and the pool (and another bar, this a freestanding open-walled room at the back of the garden) was through the living room. So, if you wanted to come in from the pool, your drippy wet self would have to enter the living room to get to a bathroom or your bedroom; if you wanted to take raw meat and gooey potato salad out to the patio to braai, you had to take it through the living room; if you wanted a tipple…well, same thing…no quick trip to the kitchen fridge, but a stop in the family pub that dominates the living room. Pity anyone trying to watch TV or read a book or have a conversation with the local vicar, eh?
There was the house that had a cramped windowless room between the kitchen and the dining room. Dubbed the “TV lounge” by the sellers, the room had to be traversed diagonally to get to the living room, and then around a corner to meet up with the dining table. Then there was the R6.5M “estate” that you had to walk through the main bedroom to access the stairway to the loft bedroom above…and for 6.5M you didn’t even get a garage! It had a nice kitchen, but you had to walk out into the hallway, down the hall, and around the corner to reach the dining room that was just on the other side of the kitchen wall.
Some houses have their family rooms right next to the living room…doesn’t seem to make much sense to me since the family room was intended to be a place where the family could kick back, shoes off, sprawl on the rug to watch TV or play games while the living room, in another part of the house, was reserved for more formal, even adult purposes. And I have yet to figure out the South African obsession with installing a fully functioning bar in the home…we saw a house that had an incredibly dysfunctional, windowless kitchen that needed thousands of rand worth of work, but down the hall there was an obviously costly bar installed…plumbed and boasting beer kegs and bar top taps…that was worthy of a corner pub! This house also required an extensive hike from the kitchen, down a hallway, and around a corner to deliver food from the kitchen to the dining table...but the expensive, professionally-equipped pub was obviously a higher priority than creating a functioning kitchen and rational access to the dining room.
There are houses where you enter directly into the dining room…no foyer or entry way, just a front door that opens into the dining room. I don’t think I have ever…not even once…seen an American house that you stepped through the front door and bumped immediately into a dining table! But I have seen several South African houses with this design, so obviously people buy them despite their awkwardness.
I have seen several houses that had peculiar dressing room/bathroom arrangements…when your closets are in the bathroom, steam from the showers will mildew your clothes, even if there are doors on the closets (I know…I had a house like that). I viewed one house where there was a huge…and I mean as big as the master bedroom…walk-in closet adjacent to the bedroom but no en-suite bathroom. Well, at least I thought there was no master bath until I walked all the way to the back of the closet, past all the clothes and stepping over the owner’s considerable collection of shoes, to find a doorway leading into the bath. I could just imagine myself making a 2 am trip to the loo and getting tangled up in a dress or tripping over Hubby’s size 13s! No thanks…access to the bathrooms should be proximal and unimpeded!
Then there are those darlings of trendy housing design, open plan kitchens. I can think of only one that I have seen, here in SA, open onto a family room so that the cook would not be isolated from her family while preparing their dinner…and in this solitary example, the stove was situated to that the cook had her back to the family room, the family, and all the activity on going (not only that, but her sink, microwave, and fridge were in a different room!). I’ve seen other open plan kitchens that are also laid out so that the cook, while in an open room that segues into another…usually the dining room…is forced by the layout of the kitchen to turn her back on any guests or family that might happen to have wandered in to keep her company.
So, creating easy, sensible room flow is not a particularly strong skill with South African home designers, making it a challenge for us to find a house that does not feel like half the rooms have been “glommed on.” It is an important criterion for us…that, and finding a house with at least a few amenities. More about that next time.
Tuesday, February 16, 2010
There is a thing in kitchen design called the “golden triangle” or “work triangle.” This concept puts the three most-used kitchen items…the stove, the fridge, and the sink… within just a few steps of each other and provides counter top space between them. It is not a new or even a high-end concept: my father and step-mother bought a modest new tract home in the early 1960s that incorporated this concept to great effect.
It doesn’t matter how beautiful your kitchen is, how fine the finishes, how modern, trendy and up-to-date the lighting is, if the kitchen is not laid out efficiently, it is going to be a nightmare to work in. A golden triangle layout puts you within easy reach of the fridge, stove and sink, with food prep space in between them. I have had several kitchens of this design and they are excellent, efficient, workspaces.
South Africa has never heard of the Golden Triangle. South African kitchens are more like the Bermuda Triangle, a space given to disaster for even the most casual, laissez-faire cook. Even in new homes, the kitchens here are horrendous, classic examples of inefficient design and poor layout, and a testament to having been designed with no thought given to function. Oh, many of them are lovely…the kitchen in my rented house is beautiful---and spacious, too---but it is an absolute nightmare to cook in because the layout, in a word, sucks.
I paced it off the other day…eight paces from stove to the kitchen sink (which is in another room), ten paces from the sink to the refrigerator (which is in yet another room), twelve paces from the fridge back to the stove. This is about double the optimum distance between the major points in the kitchen...imagine carrying a heavy pot of pasta and boiling water into another room to drain it! I’ll give a bit of credit for good thinking…a small round prep sink has been installed a few feet from the stove but, unfortunately, it was installed in a corner, set well back from the edge of the countertop, and one needs to have the arms of and orang-utan to use it without neck and back strain.
Sadly, this kitchen with the lovely window overlooking a lush garden (in front of which there is no sink but should be), is typically South African. The lighting consists of a single light fitting in the centre of the ceiling…the kind you might put in an entry way and which uses only one dim bulb…and a light in the exhaust hood above the stove. That’s it…no task lighting, no wall sconces, no downlighters…and when I try to chop veggies after dark, invariably my shadow falls on everything because there is but a single light in the centre of the kitchen which, wherever I might be standing, is behind me.
This lack of forethought and planning is typical of the South African kitchen. This is a country where the vast majority of middle-class families have household help…the PC phrase is “domestic workers,” but the truth is, we have maids. And a rather large percentage of South African kitchens have a second room attached to them and that room is called a scullery. Originally the scullery was intended for washing up…that was where the grubby work was done, like washing pots and such. But, because the scullery is a rather amorphous space, without any hard and fast conceptual rules to keep it honest, South African kitchen designers (and redesigners and homeowners) each have their own ideas of what a scullery is/should be…and the result is nothing short of disastrous.
The scullery in my house isn’t too bad. It has a tall cupboard for cleaning supplies, brooms, etc., a double kitchen sink (remember, the kitchen has only that puny little prep sink) and space beneath the counter top for a washing machine and dishwasher (washers are all front loaders here). There is a door to the garage and another door out to the “drying yard” with the clothes lines. This is pretty much what a scullery is supposed to be…a place for washing dirty dishes, storing cleaning supplies, keeping the stinky trash bin, mops, brooms, laundry… But there is a problem here… I have acres of counter-top space in the kitchen and a table that seats eight. On either side of that scullery sink is barely a 2-foot by 2-foot piece of counter space…hardly space to put all of the dishes before and after washing and certainly no space to hide the aftermath of a cooking orgy from the view of my dinner guests seated at the dining table in the open plan space that combines kitchen and dining room. Also, the trash bin is in a cupboard in the scullery, meaning I have to hike there and back to dispose of eggshells or packaging…actually, I toss it in that silly prep sink, which is useless for draining potatoes or pasta (awkward location splashes boiling water all over the counter top) and impossible to reach for peeling anything.
As inadequate as my scullery is, some of the ones I have seen in houses for sale were downright flabbergasting. In two houses in the last ten days I have seen kitchens that contained nothing more than a breakfast table/bar and a stovetop. I am not kidding! Oh, a few cupboards and some countertop space, but no refrigerator, no microwave oven, no sink (not even a prep sink)…nothing but a stove and a place to eat. I tried to imagine myself cooking breakfast in one of those kitchens…eggs burning on the stove, toast burning in the toaster in the scullery while I’m digging around in the refrigerator out in the hallway looking for the cream for Hubby’s coffee. The major “stations” of the golden triangle were in different rooms…and this was a remodelled kitchen!! I shudder to think what it must have looked like before!
In another house with a remodelled kitchen, the scullery was literally twice the size of the actual kitchen and was, in fact, the kitchen minus the stove. In a long narrow space adjacent to the scullery there was some countertop space with a stovetop fitted into the centre. If you were standing there cooking, your back would be to another countertop that was supposed to be the breakfast bar, and beyond that bar was the family room. Unfortunately, the chairs for the breakfast bar completely blocked the walkway space from the front of the house to the bedrooms, so if anyone wanted to travel from the front door or living room to the bedroom, those sitting at the breakfast bar would have to move to allow access. This kitchen had no prep sink, no appliances, nothing except the stove…the rest of the kitchen was in another room.
South African kitchens tend to have the washing machine plumbing in them. I consider this kinda gross. Even if the washer is in the scullery, I don’t exactly relish the thought of my soiled undies and Hubby’s dirty socks sharing space with the drinking glasses and forks…ew! And what if a basket of laundry is sitting on the scullery floor and you trip and spill a plate of leftover spaghetti onto a basket of whites? I like the idea of a laundry space, but my kitchen…or scullery…just doesn’t do it for me.
Kitchens in this country don’t have garbage disposals and most of them have insufficient drawer space as well. For as large as my present kitchen is, there are only four drawers. Base cabinets here do not have a drawer above the doors, as is the norm in American kitchens. I have a single bank of four drawers which is next to the stove and more than 15 paces from the dining room table. So, forks, spoons and other table ware are now kept in the drawer of the china cabinet in the dining room…that one piece of furniture has five drawers in it, one more than my entire kitchen and scullery combined.
The lack of a garbage disposal is not that big a problem in terms of food preparation, but I live in a country that has aggressive flies. You know those TV ads soliciting money for starving children in other countries, the ones that show big-eyed little black children with flies crawling all over their faces? Yup…those flies. Nasty buggers that will fly under your glasses, up your nose, and even try to enter your mouth as you open to put a forkful of food in it. They have never heard of window screens in this country, so the flies are everywhere, and I’ll bet you can just imagine what a kitchen bin smells like in 90°F heat…and how difficult it is to keep the flies away from it. A garbage disposal would be nice…
One of the things I do like about South African kitchens is that they all seem to have ceramic tile floors, which are pretty easy to clean. They’re awfully hard on dropped crockery, though, but seem to clean up easier than the vinyl floors that are the norm in American kitchens.
But the bottom line is, the average South African kitchen is a dismal affair. Poorly designed and badly laid out, unimaginative (no kitchen islands, no pot racks, no gas ranges or microwave shelves) and wholly dysfunctional, the kitchens here are, at best, bleak.
We’re still house hunting but have come to the conclusion that as far as the kitchens go, we are just going to have to take one that has sufficient floor space so I can tear it all out and do it right…and that means a complete redesign using the golden triangle concept.
**sigh** So much for finding our dream house…
Monday, February 15, 2010
Well, I'm back. Have been in my too-small and insect-infested rental house for a month now...and have more than 60 mosquito bites to show for it...and we are desperately, daily, house hunting. And so far, the results of our search is, at best, dismal. Contrary to local myth, Johannesburg is much more costly than Cape Town, it rolls up its sidewalks at 6 pm (except for the unbelievable abundance of bars, clubs, pubs, and other watering holes), the roads are worse than any country road I've ever driven, at any given time half of the traffic lights in town are not functioning, the traffic is akin to LA's, and I don't think I have ever encountered so many rude, self-absorbed people in such a short time anyplace else in my life. To put it succinctly, Joburg sucks and I am not happy here. (And that is without even giving a passing mention to the absolutely horrific weather here.)
But despite my feelings, I am stuck here, at least until we can find a way back to the Cape and, because Hubby must pay back the cost of relocation if we leave within one year, we are pretty much stuck here for a while. (Don't even ask about the move...suffice it to say that my list of grievances against the moving company has more than 50 items on it, from breaking a piece of heirloom china to packing an antique doll beneath a cast iron door stop to finding my missing lingerie packed in a box beneath a soiled dog bed and blanket to damaged furniture.) Yesterday was Valentine's Day and after a sumptuous lunch at a landmark restaurant, Hubby and I hit the streets, looking for open houses (called "show houses" here).
I am not impressed with South African architecture, in the main, but then I'm not terribly fond of certain trends in American home design in recent years, either. I remember when the “open plan” concept, as applied to homes, began popping up on such programs as “This Old House” and Bob Vila’s home renovation shows. Touted as the latest and greatest thing in home design and already incorporated in newly-built tract homes, I was appalled at the blatant attempt on the part of builders to reduce their construction costs (fewer walls, less cost to build) by snookering people into accepting their self-serving, penny-pinching new design as something desirable. Two decades later, open plan is not only incorporated into newly built homes, you are hard-pressed to find a separate kitchen in even older, classic homes…everybody has jumped on the bandwagon and remodelled under the “open plan” banner. And, for the most part, the results I have seen have been unmitigated disasters.
I hate open plan. Just hate it. When I have spent hours banging about in the kitchen, dirtying pot after pan, piling the sink full of soiled dishes and littering the countertops with colanders, cutting boards, measuring cups, half-emptied cartons of milk and packets of pasta, why would I want the disaster-filled kitchen to be in full view of my guests? Or even my family, for that matter? Clean as I go along? Sorry, when making a choice between burning the chops or swabbing the sticky stuff in the sink, the chops win out every time. Besides, that is what kitchen doors are for…to separate the grunt-labour involved in putting a meal on the table from the innocents who should be allowed to eat their meal in peace, unburdened by the potentially guilt-inducing knowledge that their smiling hostess has just sweated off the equivalent of a marathon in her pursuit of their gastronomic happiness.
Think about it for a minute…have you ever worked in an open plan office? Think not? Do the words “cubicle” or “cube farm” ring a bell with you? If you truly haven’t ever been subjected to this kind of work environment, do you know anyone who has? Know any cube denizens who love working in a cube? There is no privacy…the sniffles of the allergy sufferer to your left cannot be shut out; the incessant and annoying giggle of the phone-addicted twit on the right cannot be silenced, and the toilet-mouthed guy with the booming voice over your third wall precludes any phone conversation you might want to make, for fear of the background noise of sniffles, giggles, and F-bomb backdrop offending your listener. You cannot speak freely as you most certainly will be overhead, and your activities (or lack thereof) are visible to anyone who happens to walk by your non-existent cubicle door. I used to laugh when given a “confidential” memo to type…just how confidential is anything you type up in a cube where anyone can stand at the entrance and see your computer screen without your knowledge because your back is to the doorway? Life in a cube farm is devoid of any kind of privacy, peace, or dignity…why would we want to replicate that in our homes?
But the marketeers did their jobs well, eventually convincing First World home buyers across the globe that spending more money for less privacy, fewer walls (and a lot fewer cupboards!) was the hip, modern, trendy thing to do (did I mention I also hate “trendy”?). Now, a couple of decades later, in order to attract serious buyers a house must have an open plan kitchen. And that is where it all started to go wrong.
You see, aside from the desire to save some money on construction and gouge gullible buyers out of a few extra bucks, the concept of “open plan” was supposed to be a way to keep the cook from being isolated from the family during meal prep times. Personally, I relished that brief respite from the demands of family life…let Daddy parent the little darlings for a while so I can vin his coq for him, steam a little asparagus and whip up some lemon butter and a mountain of fluffy mash to delight his taste buds. But sentimental home buyers…read that guilt-saturated career moms who left the fruit of their loins in daycare while they work…bought into the “spend more quality time” with their kids idea and the open plan concept took off.
But, like anything else, the basic reason for the whole concept became forgotten as the trend saturated the market and owners of traditional kitchens began dragging down cabinets and smashing down walls. Open plan as a concept, but devoid of reason, began to take over. Traditional houses, venerable older homes, seldom had family rooms and if they did, those family rooms were seldom adjacent to the kitchen. In the more classic home layout, the dining room was adjacent to the kitchen and the living room was generally on the other side of the dining room. In the frenzied stampede to jump on the open plan band wagon, homeowners overlooked the obvious: the room in which Mom slaves over a hot stove is NOT adjacent to the room where the kids sprawl out in front of the tube…but open plan now rules home desirability so dining rooms and kitchens began merging into a single open space. The fact that Hubby and kiddies were still in a separate room and Mom can no longer close the kitchen door on the mountain of dirty dishes and other detritus of meal preparation was immaterial in the face of the power of the trend.
The next phase of the movement returned to the new home build. I now live in a house that was built to have the lounge and dining room in a single open plan space. Interestingly, the living room is beyond the dining room and it has double doors on it to shut out the noise from the kitchen and the cooking smells! A large granite breakfast bar divides the dining space from the kitchen space…what kind of sense does that make? A breakfast bar literally beside the dining table! The purpose of the open plan concept is completely defeated in this house…Mum is still isolated from Dad and the kiddies while she cooks and they sprawl in front of the big screen, but now Mum can’t shut the kitchen door to hide the eyesore the kitchen became during meal prep.
Developers, however, are building on their success. If people will swallow the ridiculous notion of paying more money for fewer walls simply by telling them that this is a new trend, why not take it further? A couple of years ago we looked at a flat we were considering as a rental…until I saw the bedroom. The bathtub and the sink were in the bedroom, as was a shower stall. Only the toilet had its own walled-off space with a door. The salesman tried to tell me this was “romantic,” but I am sorry, as much as I love my husband, some things…like spitting toothpaste into the sink and gargling afterwards…should just remain private. Besides, who needs the steam getting into the closet and mildewing the clothes?
In our house hunting last week we saw a house that just floored me…this open plan bathroom thing had been incorporated when it was remodelled but they had just gone too far…from the bed you could see the toilet and there was no door! Speaking only for myself, there are times that being able to close the loo door is all that saves the rest of the family from being gassed in their sleep, such is the consequence of indulging in certain delicious but pungent and lingering culinary delights.
Maybe I am just getting old, but I value privacy. I want a door on my bedroom…a door that locks. It is nobody’s business but my own what goes on in there. I want to close my kitchen door when I bring out the roast so you don’t see the greasy pan, the gravy spilled on the stove, the mixer beaters coated with mashed potatoes still plugged into the machine…you should be looking at the art on the walls, the beautiful garden out the window, the perfectly steamed artichokes sitting invitingly in front of you. I want a door on my bathroom, too. There is nothing “romantic” about some of the ablutions and processes we go through to make ourselves clean, well-groomed and presentable. Give me a door and allow me to keep a little of the mystery alive, please!
Most of all, let’s stop getting sucked in by greedy corporations because they prey on our insecurities and lingering adolescent desire to be “cool.” Paying more money for a house that has fewer walls, less storage space, and deprives you of essential privacy because some marketing hack in a construction company tells you it is the “newest concept” (read that “trendy and saves us big money”) makes no kind of sense at all.